I wedged myself into a far corner to watch the creature work, as out of the way as possible, but try as I might, I couldn’t actually see what the creature did- how it managed to spin the straw. But one by one, plump spools of shining gold yarn appeared next to its taloned feet, and gradually the piles of straw began to shrink. I must have fallen asleep at one point, lulled by the familiar dropclick of the spindle, for I found myself waking to a sharp nudge to my ribs.
“It must undo this,” said the creature in disgust, holding out the straw I’d braided earlier. “One cannot spin something so large.” I sat up, and rubbed my eyes, half with sleep and half with wonder- the piles of straw had completely disappeared, replaced by three piles of neatly stacked spools. I picked one up, awe struck, and it weighed so much I almost dropped it.
“This is- incredible,” I whispered.
“Yes yes, one has done such lovely work,” the creature said impatiently, “But the bargain was the entire room, and the bargain is not kept until this last bit is spun. A bargain must be kept! Nothing for free, nothing. It must undo it’s work!” It shoved the braid into my hands, and I, realizing the amount of predawn light streaming in through the window, quickly unbraided it.
The creature snatched the handful back, did… whatever it was it did, and one final, smaller spool was set atop the smallest pile.
“One’s work is done. The bargain is kept. One must not tarry.” So saying, it twirled around and vanished into itself until there was nothing left but a wisp of pungent-smelling smoke- and even that soon dissipated, as the sunlight grew stronger.
I cradled the spool I’d picked up carefully in my two hands. This- even this much gold could have fed my village for an entire year. And this was just one of perhaps a hundred such spools. The kingdom would never want again, with such riches in its coffers. Perhaps good would come of this, after all.
The door swinging open interrupted my musings, and almost without thinking I slipped the spool into the pocket of my skirt. I smoothed it, then looked up to see a pair of fully-armored guards gaping at the room with expressions so ridiculously disbelieving that I had to laugh. This seemed to bring them back to their senses, and their faces slipped back into the masks one expects to see on royal guards. They moved to flank the door, and pounded their polearms on the stone floor twice. I giggled again, feeling almost drunk with relief that neither of them would be using their swords on my neck today.
“Has she gone mad, then?” It was not the king’s voice that came from around the door, but that of his advisor. Apparently the king could not be bothered to see the results, himself. Or perhaps the royal person simply didn’t arise with the sun.
“No more so than anyone else in this place,” I said coldly. I stood as straight as I could after a night spent sleeping on stone, and wrapped my arms around my chest. Let him keep his eyes anywhere but on my skirt.
The advisor stepped into the room, and his face took on the same comical expression the guards’ had had. I stifled my snicker behind my hand.
“You… you… you... you’ve done it!” he gaped.
“I told you we were not liars,” I said. “Now I’ve done as the king asked- you must release me!”
He shook his head. “I… forgive me, my lady, but I came expecting to prepare you for execution, not… not miracles!”
“And yet that is what you’ve found,” I said sharply, “And you must release me!”
He shook his head again, still staring at the gold. “That is not within my power. Only the king can do that. And he will be… he will want to see this, himself.”
My heart sank. The last thing I wanted was to spend another moment in that horrible man’s company.
“I am cold, hungry, and exhausted,” I snapped. “I have done what was requested of me- can I not at least have a rest?”
His eyes finally focused on me, and he blinked rapidly. “That- yes, that is within my power."